|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 220 July/August 2018
The Socialist @1000
For over 20 years, week in week out, the Socialist newspaper has reported on the struggles of working-class people in Britain and internationally. It has navigated complex political and social times, an indispensable tool for Socialist Party members and working-class activists. Having just passed a landmark one thousand issues, its editor, SARAH WRACK, looks at the important role the Socialist plays.
In June the Socialist Party published the 1,000th issue of the Socialist newspaper, which was launched in 1997. In the time since the first issue, we have directed a big proportion of our resources, finance, energy and time into maintaining a weekly paper. We have striven to offer an accessible, lively and thorough analysis of events past and present, local to international, and to reflect the varied campaign work that the Socialist Party has been involved in.
Methods of communication have changed hugely in the last 21 years, yet our main publication – as for socialist organisations over generations – remains our weekly printed newspaper. This milestone for the Socialist is a good time to ask the question, is this the right priority? How is the Socialist changing in response to new technology? What is the role of a revolutionary socialist paper in the era of Corbynism?
In many ways, the overarching tasks facing the Socialist today are the same as those that faced us in 1997, our predecessor Militant in the 1980s, or Lenin’s Iskra in 1900. The revolutionary paper needs to find the best way to differentiate a socialist approach in a way that can be understood by working-class people, particularly those who are most conscious about the need to change society – and to point the way forward for the workers’ and socialist movement at that moment in time.
Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, described the revolutionary party as the "memory of the working class". We often express this through our newspapers. Throughout the month of May this year we published five articles on the revolutionary events of May 1968 in France. This included an overall analysis on the lessons, followed by a week-by-week explanation of the events as they happened. Such rich analysis of such a vital period of workers’ movement history was to be found nowhere else.
A revolutionary paper must be an educational tool, expressing Marxist ideas on how to change society, and analysing the economic, political and social developments of the day. The Socialist has become even more important in the era since the economic crisis of 2007-08, as have our sister publications around the world. Since that time, there has been discussion on political ideas among a much wider layer than in the previous period, hugely widening our potential readerships.
A paper should be an organising tool, too, sharing experiences between different geographical areas and different types of campaign work. In the last year, the Socialist Party has played a leading role in victories in three NHS campaigns: Glenfield children’s heart unit in Leicester, Chatsworth rehabilitation ward in Mansfield, and the Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. These campaigns and many others have shared their tactics and successes in the pages of the Socialist.
But our paper should never be lecturing. Instead, it should offer a platform to working-class people to speak for themselves. Trotsky famously said that in a revolutionary paper we need to hear "how the workers live, fight, clash with the police or drink whisky". We encourage members and supporters to write letters, reviews and descriptions of their daily life as workers.
To be fit for purpose, a paper like ours should be able to respond quickly when mass movements take place and be turned to by significant layers of those participating. Our sister party in Catalonia, for example, sold over 1,000 copies of its paper on just one demonstration during the recent independence movement. In the 2015 referendum called by the Syriza government on a further troika bailout deal, our sister party in Greece sold 2,700 papers in five days.
Print press crisis
The printed press is in crisis. Local and regional papers were hit hardest first. Some closed. Many more have carried out extreme cost-cutting, leaving their one or two remaining journalists producing, as former editor of the Daily Mirror Roy Greenslade put it, "something that looks like a paper, but the content lacks any real value". The Independent pitched itself as forward thinking and modern for moving to an online-only format. The New Day, a venture by Trinity Mirror supposedly designed to attract social media-savvy non-newspaper readers to buy a printed publication, lasted only two months.
At the same time as New Day was going under, however, the Socialist was six months into a very successful sales campaign – because we are not the same as the capitalist printed press. We are not a faceless company trying to convince people to pick up a newspaper from the shop shelf. Our sales are active.
We are on the street campaigning, talking to people about socialist ideas for the anti-austerity movement and why they need to read and support the Socialist. Most of our ‘customers’ are people we work alongside in the trade unions, on university campuses and in community campaigns. They see our sellers in action as some of the best fighters in those movements and identify the Socialist as a tool that guides them in that role.
We’re different to the establishment papers because our content is different. Our articles are written by workers and young people themselves – reporting from the coal face to answer the lies of the capitalist class. Establishment newspapers promote those lies instead. Why? Because their CEOs and shareholders are the capitalists. Five billionaire men own 80% of printed newspapers in the UK, as well as a host of other media. The role of those papers is to defend the interests of the capitalist system. Alongside the fake news scandals, outrageous episodes of front-page racism and attacks on workers and their unions, no wonder swathes of ordinary people have turned their backs.
However, the main direct cause of the crisis for the capitalist papers is not actually a fall in sales but in advertising. The group that owns the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the Metro reported a 13% decline in print ad revenue in six months of 2016. In the US, following a ‘steady decline’ of 5-8% a year from 2010 to 2015, one study showed a massive 31.5% fall in national print advertising in 2016 alone. While online ad revenue is increasing, it still makes up a much smaller proportion of the publishers’ incomes.
The Guardian, which suffered an £11 million fall in advertising revenue in 2016, has turned to asking readers to become ‘members’ and pay a regular donation to compensate for this loss. Its editor-in-chief wrote that this was necessary because "the business model for journalism is failing". In other words, it is a recognition that support for the message of the paper is a stronger basis to go forward on. This, of course, has always been the Socialist’s approach.
The only advertising the Socialist accepts is from groups of working-class people who value what we do and want to support us. For example, in this year’s May Day greetings campaign we raised £7,530 from trade union branches, campaigns and local Socialist Party groups. Beyond that we are funded entirely by sales and donations from people who want to read what we’re saying and support the idea of working-class people and socialists having our own independent media.
Presenting complex ideas
But clearly, the question is not just can the Socialist survive but should it? Is a printed paper the best way to communicate with people today, or does the internet present an obstacle to developing it? Socialist organisations need to use all methods of communication to reach the biggest number of people possible. The Socialist Party has increased the resources we put into social media and our website, with some very good results, and has many more exciting plans for the future.
We have a regularly-updated website, Facebook page, Facebook group, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube. We produce videos, memes, online events, and short posts responding to news – on top of leaflets, posters, pamphlets, books and this magazine. The key, rather than choosing which of these is best, is finding the best way to integrate all of these different publications and media to most effectively get our message across to the biggest possible audience.
This also means the Socialist taking into account the impact of the growth of online media on how people, particularly young people, expect to see information. We aim to have a good number of short, snappy articles in every issue which express class anger or report on particular campaigns. We have increased the average size and space given to photos. We try to pull out interesting quotes and facts and illustrate them with graphics where possible.
However, in a world of complex processes and the need for careful explanation to have clarity on what is needed, we still need longer analytical articles. We do not accept the idea that working-class or young people won’t or can’t read long pieces if they feel they are worth reading. Research shows that, although a smaller number of people read newspapers, a much greater amount of time is spent reading them than reading things online.
Newspaper owners conclude from this that their audience will inevitably be increasingly ageing and middle class. We reject this patronising idea completely, just as Karl Marx or the leaders of the Russian revolution – at times when there were many more obstacles blocking working-class people from reading, not least the much higher rates of illiteracy – had confidence that their complex ideas could be presented to working-class people in a way that they would want to read and find out more.
It should also be noted that the plummeting trust in the capitalist media mentioned earlier also effects social media. In fact, polls show that fake news and the Cambridge Analytica scandal mean trust in traditional print media has partly rebounded, while social media has dropped significantly. Ultimately, the main factors in how much confidence and support a publication has, in any format, are perceived reliability, honesty, and openness – all of which are abundant in all of the Socialist Party’s media.
Different levels of class consciousness
A printed newspaper has a number of advantages. Most obviously, it is a physical tool for our members and supporters to use on political activities – both to identify themselves with the Socialist Party, and to sell the paper to those they meet. We can and do give out a website address on a picket line but it is far less likely that someone will go home and remember to look it up than look through a physical paper they paid money for and took away with them.
We can and do give out leaflets in our campaign work, but a leaflet by its nature can only address one or maybe two issues in one or two ways. The era we are organising in is not a simple one. There is a big variation in consciousness among the working class. There are those who want to talk to us and read about what’s needed in the movement today: how can trade unionists build towards generalised strike action? How can Corbyn win full control of the Labour Party? What are the lessons of the anti-austerity struggles in Greece? There are also those who might not yet have given much thought to these questions but are enraged by child poverty, inequality, food banks, etc.
All of these people can be won to socialist ideas and activism. In the Socialist we aim to address them all, and to take people from whatever issue has got them interested to drawing the conclusion that we must fight for revolutionary change. Not only does the paper give us space to do this, but a physical print edition allows us to make clear through layout the priorities of any particular week.
It is useful in achieving this balance to have a print deadline to meet each week. Over the course of publishing the Socialist and Militant before it, a rhythm to the production of political material and our local activities has developed in the Socialist Party, based around our weekly paper. Having the pages to fill every week encourages the editorial team to strive to have a variation of types of material in each issue – to maintain regular letters, readers’ comments and reviews, for example, for which there could be less drive in an online-only format.
However, the Socialist Party is not precious or nostalgic about any one type of media. For example, if in the future it’s the case that virtually all working-class people have e-readers as their main reading device, perhaps we would have download stations on our campaign stalls and ask for a donation towards that. But this is not the case at the moment – and there is a huge benefit to the fact that we have maintained a weekly printed newspaper.
A guide through the Corbyn surges
This has been brought home in the last two-and-a-half years around the developments springing from Jeremy Corbyn’s two victories as Labour leader and the 2017 general election campaign. This movement has been the biggest test of our political material – and that of all socialist organisations – in a generation. For the Socialist Party to intervene effectively in these processes, as we believe we have, has taken extraordinary nuance: the ability to connect with the enthusiasm that has surrounded Corbyn at various stages while encouraging those being radicalised to push for more from the leadership of the movement – boldness in the face of criticism.
We have had some excellent material on social media, particularly the weekly live Facebook broadcasts we produced during the general election campaign. But, without a doubt, the key to guiding our members to achieve that type of intervention has been the Socialist.
Even in a week where we have few specific articles on Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour Party, the way we pose the vast majority of issues – from our editorials to the shortest local campaign report – is geared towards the arguments and debates that have been thrown up since the summer of 2015. This is particularly important given that many of our younger members have never had experience like this – of having a battle of ideas with other trends in the labour movement – in such a stark way.
In the past, this was the case inside the Labour Party. Militant supporters would debate constantly with supporters of Tribune and other reformist tendencies, all able to test support for our ideas in front of the workers participating in the Labour Party at that stage. The hollowing out of Blairite Labour – politically and in terms of active participation – meant this was not the case for over two decades.
At the height of the Corbyn surges, our members and many supporters eagerly awaited the weekly editorials of the Socialist. When political events were coming hard and fast, sometimes necessitating a slight change of approach or emphasis, the Socialist kept the Socialist Party acting as one. Our clear political analysis prevented our members losing their way, as many others did.
We were always clear of our support for the anti-austerity desires that Jeremy Corbyn represented, and for his leadership against the Blairite saboteurs – emblazoning #keepcorbyn on all our front pages during the 2016 leadership challenge following the anti-Corbyn coup. Yet we also always raised criticisms of Corbyn’s failure to act decisively against the Blairites, and of the weaknesses in his programme.
In the editorial of the first issue after Corbyn won the Labour leadership, for example, we wrote: "As a starting point we would urgently encourage Jeremy Corbyn to organise a conference of all those who have supported him, plus the many trade unions – including non-affiliated unions like the RMT, PCS and FBU – which support a fighting anti-austerity programme… A fight needs to be launched to implement every one of the democratic measures which so terrifies Labour’s right wing, including restoring the rights of the organised working class, via the trade unions, within the party, introducing mandatory reselection of MPs and more… A new constitution could be based on the original, federal constitution of the Labour Party".
Further: "It is also necessary to go beyond the very good demands Jeremy Corbyn puts forward. He has raised the popular idea of ‘people’s QE’ but has not drawn all the conclusions about what would be necessary to implement such a policy. He merely calls for ‘meaningful regulation of the banking sector’ rather than for nationalisation of the banks under democratic control, for example".
Bold socialist programme
Our approach has helped our readers remain firm and confident in the face of much weakness and pessimism from others on the left about what programme working-class people could be convinced to fight for. Our boldness in the Socialist – saying what needs to be said – has aided our boldness in our ‘real-life’ interventions – doing what needs to be done. It stands in contrast to other pro-Corbyn groups which focus on the internet rather than producing physical publications to intervene at meetings and events. This exposes an approach of waiting for people to come to them, rather than going out and fighting to win people to a programme of action to transform Labour.
Two things seem certain. One: that online media will continue to grow ‘market share’, and that there will be further innovations to help people communicate with each other. This is welcome. Two: that the political and social aftereffects of the world economic crisis are far from over, and will present even greater opportunities for growing socialist ideas than those we have already seen. Clearly, this is also welcome. The Socialist Party will continue to maximise our use of new media, hoping to explore podcasts and more regular videos, for example, as well as redesigning our website.
It is important that we take on board these developments, and look at how we can use the rich analysis those media will undoubtedly contain to further enrich our printed newspaper. The most important factor for the Socialist looking forward, however, is the political role we can continue to play in analysing the political earthquakes to come. They will likely make the last couple of years pale in terms of scale and speed of events. The Socialist will be key to navigating them for important and growing layers of workers and young people.